On Finding Stick Figures Drawn in My Historical Sources

Mysterious Stick Figures on the Black Rock

I’ve been turning up quite a bit of material relevant to my project on Archive.org and Google Books — including no shortage of 19th century writings on the Victoria Bridge and ship fever in Montreal.

This image is from page 65 of Hunter’s Handbook of the Victoria Bridge (1860) as found on Google Books via the University of Michigan. A previous reader — perhaps “Frederick Watson,” whose name is written on the cover in black ink — added figures of tiny people rappelling and sliding down the Black Rock monument.

What were Frederick’s motives? Perhaps he found the book to be boring — was it assigned for a college course? Was he making some sort of political statement about immigrants and the Irish Potato Famine? (Note the words “desecration” and “ship fever” are crossed out.) Or did he simply wish to practice his stick figures? They do look like they’re having fun.

Strange how digital sources can seem so inert until you come across an irreverent doodle from long ago. You’re reminded that this book is a physical object that exists somewhere, one that has traveled across time and space and has passed through many hands.

If I owned the book, I might respond with some scrawls of my own.  But alas, with PDF files, the hidden and anonymous community of readers bound over years by marginalia cannot flow forward.

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April 6, 2013 · 11:30 pm

2 responses to “On Finding Stick Figures Drawn in My Historical Sources

  1. Alaina Mabaso

    This reminds me of the South African history book I think was from the 70′s that I found in my in-laws’ stuff. They must have gotten it second-hand somewhere. The names of the Afrikaaner boys who’d owned it were still there, as well as their doodles and what they’d underlined- in many cases, perfectly horrific white supremacist stuff. It made me see the book’s audience in a whole new way. I calculated the present ages of the book’s former owners and wondered where they were and how much of those abhorrent lessons they held on to in adulthood.

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